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FOREIGN Minister Stephen Smith has condemned the crackdown on media freedom by Fiji’s military-backed government.

Dictator Frank Bainimarama has given News Limited three months to sell or close The Fiji Times, under demands that media organisations must be 90 per cent locally owned.

The measures also include jail terms for journalists whose work is deemed against the “public interest or order”.
Mr Smith said said the move was another example of the Pacific nation’s military rulers impinging on the democratic rights of its people, and would also hurt investment in Fiji.

“We worry very much that this arbitrary move sends a very bad signal as far as future investment in Fiji is concerned, let alone the very bad signal it sends in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and democratic rights,” Mr Smith said.

After ousting the elected government of Laisenia Qarase in 2006, Mr Bainimarama yesterday moved to legally enshrine and even tighten existing controls on local newspapers, radio, TV and internet outlets with “The Media Industry Development Decree 2010”.

The law follows intimidation of reporters by soldiers, deportation of foreign-born newspaper executives and, last year, imposition of censors into newsrooms to ban “negative” stories after the constitution and judiciary were scrapped when a court ruled that the military regime was illegal.

Effective immediately, the decree imposes fines and jail terms of two years for journalists and editors and orders that all media outlets must be 90 per cent owned by Fijian citizens who live permanently in the island nation.

The Fiji Times – the oldest, (founded in 1869) and largest of the country’s newspapers and one of the oldest newspapers in the Asia-Pacific region – is wholly owned by News Limited, publisher of The Australian, and has three months to comply with the decree or be closed down. The newspaper has its own board, which includes several Fijian nationals as directors.

Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, who detailed the laws, has described The Fiji Times as a “purveyor of negativity” after its robust reporting of the coup and failure of Mr Bainimarama to hold democratic elections.

Former prime minister Sitiveni Rabuka, the first coup leader, who was elected in 1992 and held power until 1999, said last night The Fiji Times had been very critical of his own leadership, but that the newspaper had “served Fiji very well” for more than a century. “It has been a pioneering and strong newspaper,” he said.

News Limited chief executive and chairman John Hartigan said the decree further eroded the “basic tenets of democracy” in Fiji.

“This illegal government has retrospectively withdrawn permission for foreign media investment in Fiji, which is not only grossly unfair but will inevitably be enormously damaging to Fiji’s reputation as an attractive investment opportunity,” he said.

Mr Hartigan doubted there would be a prospective buyer for the newspaper, which employs 180 journalists and up to 1000 people indirectly, in the face of the “draconian restrictions”. A new “independent” Media Tribunal will police all articles and broadcasts and impose fines or jail terms on material “which is against the public interest or order, is against national interest, offends against good taste or decency or creates communal discord”.

“One of two things is likely to result from this: closure of The Fiji Times or a takeover by a compliant new party by the end of September,” Mr Hartigan said. “Regardless, either of these scenarios means a voice of democracy that has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the people may be silenced.”

Mr Hartigan also expressed his disappointment at the efforts of the Howard and Rudd governments in pressuring Mr Bainimarama to hold elections.

“For its part, the Australian government has brought little pressure to bear on the military government to hold elections, restore democracy or re-establish the depleted power of Fiji’s judiciary, outside of travel bans on regime leaders and their families.”

Mr Smith denied the government had not done enough to pressure Mr Bainimarama to hold elections.

“We’ve been at the forefront of Fiji’s suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum,” he said.

“We’ve been at the forefront of Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and we impose travel restrictions on them.”

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